Soccer is a club sport. Healthy clubs with well-constructed squads training together year-round. Maybe international soccer has some coherent technical projects, we don’t know - frankly, we don’t want to know.
But if it’s going to impact the New York Red Bulls, we’re contractually required to write about it. As the Red Bulls and the rest of Major League Soccer are increasingly learning, there’s a catch to acquiring high-quality talent. Much like the rest of society, the international soccer calendar is creeping back to normality in 2021, with the full restart of packed qualification programs amidst widely-disrupted league schedules leaving clubs around the world bracing for some of their top players to be away for extended periods playing in qualifiers and tournaments alike.
Few teams in MLS have as wide of a possible international outlay as the Red Bulls, who have taken a noticeable international bent in recruitment since the installation of Welsh sporting chief Kevin Thelwell and Austrian head coach Gerhard Struber last season. Ahead of a year in which the management has stressed the importance of depth in the squad, we take a look at which players the team are liable to lose to the all-star circuit for stretches of 2021.
Cristian Cásseres Jr (Venezuela)
Following the steps of his namesake father who earned 28 caps at international level, Red Bulls central midfielder Cristian Cásseres Jr has become one of the rising stars of the Venezuelan national team in recent months. The 21-year-old earned his first senior cap in a World Cup qualifier against Colombia last October and has become a regular in the squad since, earning rave reviews from local observers as his status in the New York lineup continues to settle.
Venezuela has a packed 2021 schedule that Cásseres would almost certainly play at least a partial role in. Rounds of World Cup qualification in March and June will be immediately followed by the summer Copa America tournament, leaving a cumulative two months in which the Red Bulls could be missing their rising midfield anchor. Presuming Cásseres will be a key part of the starting XI in need of a direct fill-in, his likely understudy in any international duty appears set to be recently acquired Salzburg loan signing Youba Diarra.
Cásseres’ even younger Red Bulls teammate and countryman Wikelman Carmona has additionally been rising at the youth national team levels for Venezuela, making appearances for the under-20 national side in the local Copa Santa Lucia tournament last month despite still being only 17 years of age.
Kyle Duncan (USA)
The Brooklyn-born right back and nephew of Liberian legend George Weah earned his first senior cap for the USA in the January camp friendly against Trinidad & Tobago. While he was not in the under-23 team selected for the upcoming CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers later this month, the lack of a clear first-choice right back for the USMNT leaves the door open for Duncan if he builds on his good form at the end of last season.
However it is unclear whether Duncan’s absence would even be a debilitating factor for the Red Bulls in 2021. New York acquired former Stoke City player of the year Tom Edwards at the right back position on top of already-present English reserve Mandela Egbo, putting Duncan’s access to consistent minutes this year in some question.
Aaron Long (USA)
Aaron Long’s journey from USL midfielder to one of the elite MLS center backs has been well-covered, with the trajectory continuing at international level. The 28-year-old Californian now has 19 caps for the US since his 2018 annus mirabilis and has emerged as a key veteran in the mobile, technical backline being assembled by Gregg Berhalter, captaining a mostly domestic-based American side in the aforementioned 7-0 friendly victory over Trinidad & Tobago in January.
But Long’s importance to his country pales in comparison to the pillar he represents for the Red Bulls, who have turned down substantial transfer offers from Europe in successive windows for the centerpiece of their own athletic backline. But even with Long still in New York, the Red Bulls will need to have contingency plans as the USMNT’s packed schedule (including Nations League fixtures in June and a Gold Cup in July) leaves Long liable to miss long stretches of MLS play in 2021. Amro Tarek and Sean Nealis are New York’s current backup center backs with fullback Mandela Egbo also capable of playing centrally.
Jason Pendant (Vietnam)
Though an astronomical longshot at playing for his native France, left back Jason Pendant has recently expressed interest in playing for his mother’s homeland of Vietnam. Interest in Pendant’s international allegiance is high in Vietnam, with local newspapers already taunting the rival Thailand national team with Pendant’s image on front pages.
Were Pendant to commit to the extensive travel that would come in commuting to Asia for international play while pursuing club play in the Western Hemisphere, the Red Bulls have added crucial left back depth (for this season, at least) in the form of Atlanta United loanee Andrew Gutman.
Andres Reyes (Colombia)
Overshadowed by the flood of signings that came afterward, Colombian center back Andres Reyes is one of the Red Bulls’ most important additions this season after they beat reported European interest to his transfer from Atletico Nacional in January. Reyes has been a frequent presence at youth level for CONMEBOL powerhouse Colombia, earning 11 caps for the under-20 national team and appearing in the 2019 Youth World Cup.
Unfortunately for the center back but fortunately for the Red Bulls, Reyes and his Colombia under-23 teammates were unable to qualify for the Olympics in the January CONEMBOL tournament. But with MLS players an increasingly regular sight on CONMEBOL senior rosters, a stretch of success in New York could make Reyes a dark horse candidate for full international honors in the years to come.
- Minnesota-born Caden Clark, who was named with Kyle Duncan to the preliminary Olympic qualifiying roster for the USA, hopes to make a further jump in international play at youth or possibly even senior level this year. Fellow attacking midfielder Cameron Harper has been at the heart of a quiet recruiting war between the American and Scottish national programs that could steal him away at various youth levels.
- Depth forwards Tom Barlow, Brian White and Omir Fernandez will be aware that, even in 2021, any American striker is only a few weeks of prolific scoring form away from national team looks.
- Veterans Daniel Royer (Austria) and Amro Tarek (Egypt) both have senior caps for their countries but have not been in the international picture for years.
- Dru Yearwood and Tom Edwards have both participated in England youth national team camps in the recent past but would appear to be well outside any international consideration while playing club ball in America - though Yearwood has attracted interest from the Barbados program through parentage.
- Youba Diarra hopes good form during a loan season in New York can help him eventually join multiple Salzburg teammates on the Mali senior team...and while his fellow Salzburg loanee Carlos Coronel is light years from the starscape of the Brazilian national side, he is still young and pedigreed enough to find his way into the often thin goalkeeping position for the selecão in the event of good career fortune beginning this year in New York.